Enron, the energy company that went from being a darling of the dot com era to bust, has become a household word, synonymous with spectacular failure, and unbridled greed. It even gave its name to a rollercoaster ride in The Simpsons - "the Enron Ride of Broken Dreams" (it is replayed here).
Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room tries to answer the obvious question: how did they get away with it? How could a multi-billion dollar company, that was once the seventh largest in the States employing 21,000, have duped so many people for so long? While the company was losing money hand over fist, it still managed to post profits for its shareholders, pushing its shareprice ever higher (it shot to almost $90 before crashing through the floor). Not only did top executives maintain the illusion of an incredibly successful company, they did it as they sold out their own shareholdings for multimillions.
Alex Gibney's documentary could have taken many tacks but since the script is adapted from a book by a couple of business journalists, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the focus is very much on the drama at the apex of the failed megacorp. It's ironic that the journalists write for Fortune magazine which regularly lauded Enron both on its cover and between its sheets. Then again, most publications were way off the mark where Enron was concerned.
An electricity linesman tells us briefly about how he watched his pension evaporate with Enron's collapse and a chaplain confides that some of the workforce are still recovering emotionally from the debacle, but the documentary retains a cool distance from the misery suffered by the rank and file. It seems there was not enough room to fit them into the Greek tragedy schema of the doc.
It does however paint a vivid picture of the cut-throat atmosphere that executives CEO Jeff Skilling and chairman Kenneth Lay ("the smartest guys" of the ironic title) cultivated within their organization, and the corporate sleaze and the hubris that would complete their undoing.
In the course of this post-mortem, and pre-trial primer - Skilling and Lay go to trial in early 2006 - it shows that Enron was only part of a web of collusion that involved major banks, accountants, stock analysts, politicans, and even the president, who is an old family friend of fellow-Texan Kenneth Lay. As one interviewee puts it: "No one who was supposed to say no, said no."
At times it is hard to keep up with all the personalities and the byzantine business structure that the Enron leaders created around them. The doc's style is fairly conservative, there's just a lot of detail.
But you get the message alright. The doc really hits you in the guts in its depiction of California's rolling blackouts in 2001. The film replays the notorious taped conversations of two Enron energy traders laughing at all the money they're making off "stuffing" Californian grandmothers. One trader is heard calling a power plant and requesting they find an excuse to turn it off so that they can charge customers more money per watt. When a forest fire shuts down a major power line one trader is heard saying, "Burn, baby, burn. That's a beautiful thing." The free market is not friendly.
Watching the doc is like having the ground hollowed out from under your feet. This is the ugly, unvarnished face of capitalism. It will leave you with a queasy sensation that somewhere out there in the financial ether trouble could be brewing again.